According to studies by the American Bar Association and others, lawyers are twice as likely to be alcoholics as the rest of the population, so at some point in your career, you will probably encounter another lawyer whose addiction problems impair their ability to practice.
By Joan Bibelhausen, Executive Director, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers
In family law, addiction to alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors such as gambling are present in a significant percentage of cases. From a purely legal standpoint, whether someone has a problem and is – or is not – addressing it can affect the outcome of their case. As a lawyer, you may be in a position of influence when a client is in trouble – either because they are the person with the direct problem or because they are affected by it. In this article, we will explore the issues of addiction and dependency and discuss ways in which lawyers may have an impact on colleagues with addiction issues.
For the purposes of this article, we will use the most common addiction – alcoholism – as the primary example.
Addiction and Dependency in Family Law: Why Does it Matter?
The American Medical Association (AMA) defines “alcoholism” as a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by continuous or periodic impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.[i]
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013).[ii] defines “Substance Use Disorder” as having patterns of symptoms resulting from the use of a substance that the individual continues to take, despite experiencing problems as a result. Substance use disorders span a wide variety of problems and cover 11 different criteria found to exist within a 12-month period.
The DSM-V also lists substance-induced disorders that include intoxication, withdrawal, substance-induced mental disorders (including substance psychosis), bipolar and related disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunctions, delirium, and neurocognitive disorders. Any of these may occur in your clients.
Gambling disorders cause disruptions in any major area of life: psychological, physical, social, or vocational, and this can certainly be an issue for family lawyers. The National Council on Problem Gambling site provides information and resources for problem gamblers and their families.[iii] Of particular value to family lawyers is the booklet, “Personal Financial Issues for Loved Ones of Problem Gamblers”.[iv]
Sexual Compulsivity is another issue that can arise in family law cases. There will be shame on the part of the person with the problem as well as their partner, and it’s a sensitive issue to discuss. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists website provides an understanding of the issue, its signs, and what help is available.[v]
4 Risk Factors for Addiction and Dependency
1. Family History. Various studies have shown that children of alcoholics are four to eight times more likely than the population as a whole to develop problems with alcohol. These children often have a higher risk for other behavioral problems as well.[vi] Although genetics are important, environmental factors may be equally influential. Environmental factors can include whether the home is abusive, whether there is neglect, and what sorts of rules and rituals exist around alcohol and other drugs.
2. Age at First Use. Individuals who reported that they first used alcohol before age 15 were more than five times as likely to report past-year alcohol dependence as persons who first used alcohol at age 21 or older.[vii] “Use”, for the purposes of this survey, means first intoxication in the case of alcohol or first use of any kind for other mind-altering drugs.
3. Gender. Women are statistically less likely to have alcohol or other substance dependency and misuse than men. However, women often don’t seek help until the disease is more advanced than for men, and there is also more shame reported among women.
4. Stress weakens the body and brain’s ability to be resilient against addiction and misuse. Mind-altering substances alter brain chemistry, which can change the way the brain responds to the stimulus of the alcohol or drug. The brain believes that the presence of the substance is normal and craves it – sometimes to the point of feeling as if the substance is necessary for survival.
What If the Addict/Alcoholic is Another Lawyer?
According to studies by the American Bar Association and others, lawyers are twice as likely to be alcoholics as the rest of the population.[viii] At some point in your career, you will probably encounter another lawyer whose addiction problems impair their ability to practice.
In most states, there is an obligation to report serious misconduct.[ix] You may suspect that a colleague is an alcoholic, but their conduct at work may not (yet) meet the definition of “serious” misconduct, or perhaps you are just concerned about a change in behavior or temperament that has occurred over time. A confidential call to a Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) will allow you to talk through a situation and options for providing help to a colleague in your organization.[x]
But what if you don’t work with the suspected alcoholic lawyer? Concerns often arise when opposing counsel smells like alcohol in a meeting, deposition, or in court; or does not seem to be tracking; or is conducting him/herself in a way that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the conduct is not that egregious; you hope it will go away, and it seems best to do nothing.
Typically three things will happen if you have an impaired opponent:
- Their work will be delayed, inefficient, and inadequate. Your client will pay more because you have to devote more time to following up, correcting mistakes, and case administration.
- Your client may ultimately get a result that would not have occurred had there been equal representation. There is a strong temptation to let it alone because your client may get a better result by law, but ultimately, the family that came apart will continue to be dysfunctional because of the contribution of the dysfunctional lawyer.
- Your stress level will increase. Ultimately clients, the administration of justice, and the public’s trust of lawyers and the judicial system are all harmed when a lawyer is impaired.
We have built a system where the lawyers themselves ensure competence through the bar exam and a character and fitness examination. We continue to support that competence through continuing legal education requirements and a requirement in most states that significant misconduct be reported. Each of these protects the public and the reputation of the justice system. We also can take care of ourselves and each other, with the goal of those same protections, through a confidential lawyer assistance program.
If you decide to pick up the phone and call your LAP because you are concerned about another lawyer, what will happen? First and foremost, your call is confidential. You may call for advice on how to deal with a situation, or you may call about someone you are concerned about. The LAP staff will talk with you to determine how best to be of assistance. LAPs typically will not rely on the report of one person – especially if you are opposing counsel – to reach out to someone. But that other lawyer may be in serious trouble, especially if they are isolated. It takes the effort of someone who is concerned to make a difference. One lawyer told us, “There had been delays and difficulties from the start, and when I finally met with the lawyer in person, it was obvious that they were not on top of things. Calling LCL [Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers] to say that this person might need some help greatly reduced my stress level.”
As you read this, you may wonder if your use of alcohol or other cravings are affecting you as a lawyer. Your call is confidential as well, and you will be referred to the appropriate professional and peer support. We have received calls that go something like: “I drank too much this weekend and felt lousy again this morning. I’d like to find out if I might have a problem.” Or “I get to my office and I just can’t get started. There are things I know I need to do but I just can’t do them.” We’ll get you started on getting help and learning what your resources are. As lawyers, we are problem-solvers, and it can be hard to ask for help to solve our own. But when we are affected by a dependence on alcohol or other mental illnesses or addictions, we become less and less able to take care of ourselves – much less or clients. Fortunately, with Lawyers Assistance Programs you are not alone, and there is help.
[i] Robert M. Morse and Daniel K. Flavin, “The Definition of Alcoholism.” Journal of the American Medical Association, August 26, 1992, Vol. 268, No. 8, pp. 1012 – 1014.
[ii] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V), text revision, 2013.
[vi]Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., and Arpana Agrawal, Ph.D., “The Genetics of Alcohol and
Other Drug Dependence.” Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2008, pp. 111-118.
[vii] SAMHSA. “Alcohol Dependence or Abuse and Age at First Use”, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2003.
[viii] John W. Clark, Jr., We’re From the Bar and We’re Here to Help You,” G.P. Solo Magazine (A.B.A. Pub.; v.21, no. 7: October/November 2004).
[ix] Rule 8.3 (c) ABA Code of Professional Responsibility
[x] For a list of Lawyer Assistance Programs, go to www.americanbar.org/colap.
Joan Bibelhausen, JD, has been the Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers since 2005. She has significant additional training in the areas of counseling, mental health and addiction, diversity, employment issues, and management. She has spent more than two decades working with lawyers, judges, and law students who are at a crossroads because of mental illness or addiction and dependency concerns as well as issues managing work/life balance and stress. www.mnlcl.org.